Correctional Insights

Why Inmate Phones are
Not a Public Utility

Nearly a decade ago, a debate began in earnest as to whether or not inmate phone providers could be considered public utility companies. This discussion on rate regulation formally began with Illinois congressional representative Bobby L. Rush’s bill, HR 555, The Family Telephone Connection Protection Act of 2007. The bill was never enacted into law, but it brought into consideration the idea of regulating inmate telephone services.

Many people still feel strongly that the inmate phone industry requires more government regulation. A new bill introduced in March would grant the Federal Communications Commission (FCC) regulatory power over interstate inmate calls, and last November, the ACLU published a report concerning this issue. The idea that inmate phone calls have to be expensive is reprehensible to many people and organizations, including our Encartele. We disagree with our competitors about this point, but as industry experts, we are also well-acquainted with the hard costs and labor that go into building and maintaining these communication infrastructures.

There’s a very good reason why inmate phone companies cannot be regulated like public utilities. Simply put, the companies in question do not meet the legal definition of a public utility company. We agree with the ACLU that the inmate phones industry needs better government regulation, but we can’t operate like public utilities.

What is a Public Utility?

It’s an elusive concept, but understanding what a public utility is and is not makes up a crucial part of this discussion. The government’s authority to regulate public utilities has been questioned ever since FDR’s New Deal in the 1930’s, (Historia). Today, the turbulent techno-legal landscape of the U.S. makes this topic even trickier to discuss.

According to the Cornell Law School website (which pulls a definition from Nolo’s Plain English Law Dictionary):

“[A] public utility is any organization which provides services to the general public, although it may be privately owned. Public utilities include electric, gas, telephone, water, and television cable systems, as well as streetcar and bus lines. Public utilities are allowed certain monopoly rights because of the practical need to service entire geographic areas with one system, but they are regulated by state, county, and city public utility commissions under state laws.”

That’s a bit of a mouthful, so let’s break it down:

  1. A public utility provides the general public with a service.
  2. A public utility can be publicly or privately owned.
  3. A public utility requires government regulation, because they are allowed certain monopoly rights to service geographic areas with one system (also known as a natural monopoly).

You may have noticed that telephones were mentioned in that Cornell definition. So that means inmate phones are utilities too then, right? Wrong. There are a whole host of differences between both services. Let’s take a look at a few of them.

Inmate Phones aren’t for the General Public

Every homeowner gets thirsty and needs water pumped into their homes, but not everyone needs to use an inmate phone provider. Some people will go their entire lives without ever receiving an inmate phone call, and that’s just the nature of the business. Inmate phone infrastructure and solutions were never intended for the general public’s use, they were designed by and for the corrections industry.

In addition, both services have very different expressed-use scenarios. Counties often use ITS solutions to facilitate rehabilitation among their detainees, while telephone service for the general public can be used in any number of ways. Public calls can be made at any hour of the day, whereas inmate phone calls are restricted to certain time periods for security reasons. The telephone service provider has no requirement to maintain and store call data for years and years after the call was initiated, for investigative purposes. Nor is the public utility telephone service obligated to cover the entire cost of their infrastructure regardless of whether a monopolistic region will be profitable or not.

Modern inmate telephone systems require a significant number of additional security features that ordinary phone service providers don’t need to develop or maintain. This is part of the reason why inmate phone calls are so much more expensive than regular phone calls.

According to a 2010 report from the Congressional Research Service, the exclusive contractual arrangements negotiated between jails and telephone service providers ensure security and allow them to monitor inmate phone calls. This report also stated that The National Sheriffs Association told Congress in 2009 that changing these arrangements could endanger public safety.


Inmate phone providers by definition are not utilities. We serve highly select populations, and our infrastructure is not accessible for general-purpose use by the public. As we mentioned above, Encartele agrees that inmate phone calls shouldn’t have to be expensive. That’s why we strive to offer affordable rates for all our services, especially CIDNET Mail.

That being said, we also understand that our industry faces some major challenges, mainly in the form of the high cost of commissions levied out in our contracts. If reform-minded organizations wanted to affect meaningful change for friends and family members of inmates, they’d call for something like a nationwide ITS commissions cap rather than utility regulation. Currently, ITS providers don’t compete based on the per-minute cost of the phone calls, they compete based on the commissions they can offer to counties. Capping these commissions would go a long way towards returning a true sense of competition to our industry, and reducing the per-minute cost of the phone call in the process.

Politicians and the ACLU are right about the per-minute costs of inmate calling being too high. Unfortunately, they’re wrong about the best way to lower them.

Correctional Insights

Gender Behind Bars

How Does An Inmate’s Gender Change a Stint in Jail?

One of the most popular shows on Netflix right now is Orange Is the New Black, a show chronicling the incarceration of Piper Chapman and other inmates at a New York women’s correctional facility. While the show is fictional, the events are based off the real-life experience of Piper Kerman, who authored a book with the same name as the showThe great thing about this Netflix original is how relateable its characters are. Whether it’s Flaca, Red, Sophia or Taystee on screen, the episodes make you care about the horrific, funny and dramatic things happening to these female inmates. No punches are pulled when it comes to emotional impacts, and the show deals with a number of topics that may be hard to talk about.

Gender, for example, is a subject that is hard to talk about at any age. Perhaps we don’t like to talk about how our bodies differ because we like to pretend that everyone is the same, and that we all have the same basic wants and needs. Episodic television shows like Orange Is the New Black and Prison Break allow us to forge past these taboos and begin to talk about these concepts in a thoughtful, rational way. Let’s keep that conversation going, and dive into how gender affects the incarceration industry:

Slider with alias gender1 not found.

Gender Disparities

There is a gender disparity among the American prison population. According to the Federal Bureau of Prisons, females make up only seven percent of the prison population while males make up 93 percent. Currently, there are no solid numbers for those who do not identify with either binary gender, but we have to assume some of these people have also entered the criminal justice system in some way. The question is, how are they being treated within the system?

According to a Reuters staff article, the U.S. Bureau of Prisons released new guidelines in May 2018 concerning non-binary prisoners, “An inmate’s biological sex will now be used to make the initial decision as to where transgender prisoners are housed, instead of the gender to which they identify.” This decisions has enormous consequences.

Lesley Webster, a transgender woman who was formerly incarcerated in a men’s facility, said that during her time there, she had her hair cut off and was subjected to 90 days in solitary confinement. Webster claimed this was due to the gender which she identified with.

While it is unknown how many situations similar to Webster’s occur across our country, San Francisco and New York City have created policies to help prevent state mistreatment of non-binary people.

Sadie Gribbon of the San Francisco Examiner wrote, “In an effort to make conditions safer for all inmates, San Francisco County’s jails will be the first in the U.S. to allow individuals who identify as transgender, gender variant or non-binary to choose their preferred housing, be identified by their proper pronoun and to choose the gender of the person searching them.”

Following in San Francisco’s footsteps, New York City will start to house inmates according to their gender identity beginning in October 2018. These kinds of policies certainly stray from the norm, but it remains to be seen whether or not they’ll be effective for a US corrections environment.

Top 5 States with the most male corrections officers next to the top 5 states with the most female corrections officers.
We decided to augment our discussion of gender and corrections by doing a little fact-finding. These graphics directly pertain to the gender divide of Correctional Officers across the nation.

Program Access and Treatment Disparities

In a Monitor on Psychology article by Jared C. Clark, Dr. Stephanie Covington, co-director of the Center for Gender and Justice, said “women are offered fewer programs than men, and the services provide little recognition of the traumatic paths that led them into the criminal justice system.” Which is not to say that males entering institutions for the first time haven’t also experienced trauma, but that the available programs at female facilities are especially wanting.

In Clark’s article, he said one state in the eastern U.S. offers a parenting program in 27 male facilities while the same parenting program is only available in 2 female facilities.

Incarcerated women often also suffer from a lack of hygiene products, such as tampons and pads. In a Broadly article by Annamarya Scaccia, “The New York City Department of Corrections currently provides 144-count boxes of thin, non-adhesive pads per 50 inmates, per week, in the Rose M. Singer Center—the only women’s facility in the Rikers Island jail complex.”

From a 144-count box, every woman would receive 2.8 pads during their menstrual cycle, which is not only unsanitary, but potentially life-threatening. Women that re-use pads and feminine napkins often develop bacterial infections or Toxic Shock Syndrome. For all the money a facility might save by skimping on these hygiene products, just a single episode of illness resulting from this practice would wipe out those savings immediately when the associated costs are factored in. Not to mention the genuine discontent it causes among inmates in the facility.

Scaccia wrote that other name-brand feminine hygiene products are sold through the commissary, but often at marked-up prices. More than half of the women in the facility live below the poverty line, and these reoccurring purchases can really hurt.

But some county officials have already begun to take action on these fronts. In Dane County in Wisconsin, Board Supervisor Heidi Wegleitner passed a resolution that would provide feminine hygiene products in free dispensers in its correctional facilities and other buildings.

Bridging the gap between the genders

Women, men and those who do not identify with either traditional binary gender all have different needs, and therefore require different care. Male and female facilities have to treat their inmates differently, but this should only apply to how an inmate’s needs are met; not whether their needs are met at all. This doesn’t mean that every staff member and CO needs to attend gender sensitivity training. Instead, for officers whose populations demand it, additional education could eliminate gender-based mistreatment at facilities across the country.

In Orange Is the New Black, Litchfield inmate Sophia Burset is a transgender African-American woman who is threatened with harsh treatment after she is targeted by other inmates. The guards and administration move her into isolation for her own safety, even though isolation is usually reserved as a punishment. Burset stayed in isolation for six months, and during that time she didn’t get to interact with another person, see the sun or receive the hormone therapy she’d been prescribed. Burset acted out and attempted suicide during this time. The staff and administration obviously should have used other measures to ensure her safety, but what should they have done instead? It’s a tough question to answer.

Jail administrators across the country may not realize it, but there’s a whole community of advocates and organizations that want to help answer questions like these. Human suffering, public ire, and lawsuits could all be avoided if we all just took a second to realize how different we are, and how differently the world treats each of us.

Want to see how egalitarian your state’s distribution of Correctional Officers is? Click the image below:

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Correctional Insights

Contraband: How Facilities Find It

What do birds, burritos, and balloons all have in common? They’ve all been used to smuggle contraband into prisons.

Broadly speaking, contraband is anything within a correctional facility that could be used to make a weapon, get you high, or talk to someone in the outside world.

While each facility has it’s own list of prohibited items, the three major categories of banned items include weapons, narcotics and electronic devices. As a general rule, inmates caught with contraband face additional charges and added time on their sentences, but that doesn’t stop them from trying to smuggle it into facilities.

To keep dope, shanks and cellphones out of their facilities, correctional officers have to be eagle-eyed; here’s how they do it.

Keeping an Eye Out for Contraband

In an Associated Press article posted to the Daily Herald’s website, Assistant Jail Commander Lieutenant Robin Byers said a majority of contraband is made by inmates out of items, such as soap and papier-mache. Byers said one of the more memorable attempts to smuggle in drugs was when an inmate hid them behind a false eye.

Whether it’s drugs, cellphones or weapons, inmates are always finding new ways to sneak contraband into correctional facilities.

According to Vernon Freeman Jr., of WTVR, a pigeon was found with a cell phone and battery attached to its back by corrections officers in Sao Paulo’s Franco da Rocha prison. Officers were clued into the failed attempt after several inmates tried to catch the bird in the prison yard.

While birds aren’t exactly the simplest mode of transporting contraband into prisons, other detainees have attempted even more hi-tech forms of smuggling.

Waseem Abbasi of USA Today reported that drones were being used to drop off items into a prison. USA Today submitted a Freedom of Information Act request to find proof of these attempts, and the government verified them. The Department of Justice sent several documents to the news outlet which “…uncovered more than a dozen attempts to transport contraband — including mobile phones, drugs and porn — into federal prisons in the past five years,” Abbasi wrote.

One such incident happened in South Carolina in 2014 according to an article by Harriet McLeod for Reuters. A drone was used to send in cell phones, marijuana and tobacco, but it crashed outside the correctional facility’s walls.

Perfecting Search Techniques

Of course, drones aren’t the preferred method for smuggling. Most inmates hide contraband in objects or clothing, such as books or underwear, and attempt to sneak it into general population.

Byers told the Associated Press, “’We do find a lot of it. Some of it does get into general population. We find a lot of drugs during strip searches around the anal cavity. Sometimes we’ll find it in a plastic bag or balloon.’”

Correctional officers must be eagle-eyed to find contraband in and around the facility. It is standard procedure to search inmates before they are incarcerated. In men’s and women’s correctional facilities, inmates are subjected to cavity searches as contraband is frequently hidden there. Prisons are now performing X-rays on incoming inmates to help identify forbidden objects that could be hidden within organs, such as the stomach.

If an inmate swallows a balloon of narcotics, they are moved to a dry cell until they pass the substance or have the objects removed surgically. The inmate must be monitored during this time, so that stomach acid doesn’t deteriorate the bag and cause an overdose.

Balloons and bags are easily found during X-rays. Bonneville County Jail in Idaho Falls, Idaho has trained correctional officers to look for any abnormalities, whether it be something metal on their clothes or contraband in the stomach or body cavity.

According to Johnathan Hogan of the Idaho Post Register, “Deputies are trained to recognize what an X-ray should look like with no hidden items and what items may look like when hidden on an X-ray, making it easier to recognize when someone is hiding contraband.”

Bonneville County Sheriff’s Office Lieutenant Michael Pickett told Hogan that the body cavity is the most commonly used way to sneak in contraband. The jail subjects inmates and their cells to searches every week to help reduce the passage of contraband around the facility.

The Main Goal is Safety

Correctional officers don’t perform searches just for inmate safety, but for their own as well. It’s an officer’s duty to protect inmates and help them on their road to rehabilitation. Homemade weapons and drug-trading threaten everyone in a facility.

According to McLeod, “Illegal cellphones, an issue in prisons nationwide, have drawn particular alarm in South Carolina. In 2010, a cellphone smuggled into the same prison was used to order a hit on a prison officer, who was shot six times at his home but survived.”

Corrections officers deal with possible dangers every day when they enter their workplace. Inmates may be the most obvious threat to safety, but they aren’t the only one, as visitors can bring in harmful objects as well.

A corrections officer’s main goal is facility security and having illegal items smuggled into a correctional facility endangers everyone.

Correctional Insights

How Law Enforcement Uses Social
Media as an Investigation Tool

Social media sites provide a great way to keep up with friends and family. They can help you meet new friends, or reconnect with old ones—and if you’re a member of law enforcement, they can help you find a possible suspect. Today, more and more law enforcement agencies are using social media as an investigation tool, even though that wasn’t social media’s traditional function.

Police departments across the country initially created Twitter and Facebook accounts to improve the public’s perception of law enforcement. For example, the Bellevue Police Department in Nebraska continues to post memes, photos and videos to show a more affable side of themselves. In June 2017, Lincoln Police Officer Courtney Leaver challenged the department to a dance-off via Twitter during National Sheriff’s Week. The call was answered when six officers broke out their dance moves for a short video.

However, the social media strategies of law enforcement agencies across the nation have matured, and their accounts now sport information relating to traffic accident, PR events and ongoing investigations. Today, social media helps police build relationships, and that in turn helps them do their jobs.

Social media to topple crime

In 2017, Sydney Loofe, a 24-year-old from Lincoln, Neb., was reported missing and later found deceased in Clay County. Without the help of her digital “breadcrumbs,” Loofe’s remains might not have been discovered.

According to an article written by Lori Pilger for the Lincoln Journal Star, the Lincoln Police Department used information from Loofe’s social media accounts, cellphone and bank information to help discover her last known location.

In Pilger’s article, Larry Barksdale, a retired Lincoln police investigator, said “a digital footprint includes cellphones. But it also includes information from online apps such as Facebook, Twitter and Snapchat, from credit card purchases or ATM visits, and from cameras along the state’s highways, outside gas stations or inside businesses…” In this case, Bailey Boswell and Aubrey Trail also posted videos denying their involvement which helped police locate them. Trail and Boswell are currently facing charges, including first-degree murder in Saline County.

In this instance, the Lincoln Police Department used social media as an investigation tool which aided in solving a crime, but that’s not always the case.

In late 2017, Kenneka Jenkins’ body was discovered in a walk-in freezer at a Hotel in Rosemont, Ill. Her death was ruled an accident by the Cook County medical examiner. Her death soon became an internet phenomenon which sparked countless conspiracy theories. Amateur web sleuths utilized social media as an investigation tool by analyzing video footage to provide information to the local police department.

According to an article in the Chicago Tribune by Kim Janssen and John Keilman, “Rosemont Mayor Bradley Stephens said local police are working with outside agencies to investigate Jenkins’ death but that fevered online guesswork about the case is hindering the probe.”

While tips from the public are helpful in solving some cases, law enforcement officers are required to follow-up on every lead, which can be taxing on a metropolitan police force — let alone a small-town department.

Using social media to identify criminal activity

According to Doug Wylie of PoliceOne, “Many criminals have posted damning evidence of their crimes on social media.” This includes gang-affiliated individuals who brag about their exploits to intimidate rivals or gain status. Because of this behavior, gang members are more likely than individual offenders to leave evidence online.

In Heather Kelly’s article for, the Cincinnati Police Department used social media as an investigation tool to identify members of a local street gang. Seventy-one members were arrested in 2008 after a nine-month social media investigation.

Law enforcement can also use social media as an investigation tool to acquire probable cause for a search warrant. So far, this practice has not been challenged in court as some laws are not necessarily up to speed with the digital age.

Wylie spoke with Rick Graham, a former Chief of Detectives in Jacksonville, Fla. who said, “Gathering a mountain of evidence from social media and being able to properly analyze it transforms raw information into ‘actionable intelligence’ and results in the effective deployment of valuable resources.”

In addition, agencies can surveil social media sites through software programs, including X1 Social Discovery, Geofeedia and MediaSonar. Though these programs have helped solve crimes and locate suspects, they don’t come without baggage.

Creating laws for social media surveillance

Law enforcement’s use of social media surveillance software has spurred some controversy. The American Civil Liberties Union has voiced concerns about whether using social media as an investigation tool could be abused to monitor those who are not suspected in any crime.

According to Jonah Engel Bromwich, Daniel Victor and Mike Isaac for the New York Times, the location-based analytics platform Geofeedia pinpoints a user’s location from social media sites, then markets that information to law enforcement agencies. Geofeedia helped Baltimore police officials locate protests following Freddie Gray’s death while in police custody in 2015.

Users of said social media platforms were concerned with each company’s lack of oversight on how their data is used. This is what first piqued the ACLU’s interest in protecting people’s online information.

The ACLU helped create Community Control Over Police Surveillance laws to “ensure residents, through local city councils are empowered to decide if and how surveillance technologies are used, through a process that maximizes the public’s influence over those decisions.”

CCOPS laws have been passed in cities, such as Seattle, Nashville, Berkeley and many more. California and Maine have even passed statewide CCOPS laws.

Social media is a great tool to use both personally and professionally, and in time, it will become an even more integral part of daily life. Law enforcement agencies currently use these platforms to relay information and build rapport with their communities, and that’s benefited them enormously. It’s a privilege to be responsible for upholding justice, and safeguarding the public’s data is a part of that. By following CCOPS laws and standards (even if no relevant law exists in your jurisdiction), law enforcement officers can protect public privacy while continuing to use social media as an effective investigative tool.

Correctional Insights

Incarceration’s Affect
on Inmates’ Children

Last year, childcare costs per family averaged $8,772 nationwide. Parents across all tax brackets will feel this increase, and many will rely on dual income sources to finance their childcare expenses. The children of inmates are especially vulnerable to these kinds of rising costs, because in most cases, there is no second income to support them.

In fact, the children of inmates are more likely than their peers to experience a whole range of disparities related to education, wealth outcomes, and family contact. These disparities may seem like insurmountable challenges, but jail administrators and prison officials can make a real difference in the lives of the children of inmates.

Pursuing an Education

For kids with parents behind bars, it’s harder to pursue a post-secondary education. Researcher Joseph Murray found that the unintended consequences of parental imprisonment included the “diversion of funds away from schools and universities.” In part, this means that family earnings and wages aren’t invested in the next generation. Instead, those funds are redirected to provide for the incarcerated parent.

If jail administrators can find ways to reduce the costs incurred incarcerated parents, that money could instead be used to fund the child’s education. For officials looking to go the extra mile, setting up a scholarship fund for inmate children could also be an effective way to support their educational aspirations.

Short-Term Family Wealth

When a parent is first incarcerated, their children are almost immediately financially disadvantaged. According to Professors Amanda Geller, Carey Cooper, Irwin Garfinkel, Ofira Schwartz-Soicher, and Ronald Mincy: “The incarceration of a father, even when parents are no longer romantically involved, often leads to decreases in household resources.” Because children with incarcerated parents are more at risk for economic and residential instability than their peers, it may be harder for them to build assets of their own as they mature.

To combat this reality in Ghana, researchers Kwadwo Ofori-Dua, Kofi Osei Akuoko & Vincent de Paul Kanwetuu made the following recommendation: “Economic problems are major challenges facing families of incarcerated persons. Prison authorities should enhance the ability of inmates to work while in prison so that they [can] remain economically active and remit their families at home.” While this recommendation pertains specifically to the prisons of Ghana, making similar adjustments here in the US could provide more funds for the children of inmates.

Maintaining Family Contact

In addition to the educational insights presented in his work, Murray also found that “Ninety-five percent of women reported that family contact was extremely important to them, but only 67 percent of imprisoned mothers were visited by their children. The absence of visits appeared to relate to practical difficulties of travelling, distance between prison and home, the cost of travel, and visiting times.” It is important to note that these practical difficulties have nothing to do with the intent of the child.

Often, it is not the child who decides whether or not to visit their incarcerated parent, but the child’s caregiver. Researchers Julie Poehlmann, Danielle Dallaire, Ann Booker Loper, and Leslie Shear write that “[Caregivers] need support for dealing with their stress and concerns about visitation. The financial and logistical difficulties of arranging visitation, as well as the increased burden presented by the demands of child rearing can affect the caregiver, who often serves as gatekeeper in terms of his or her willingness to facilitate contact.” For caregivers, arranging transportation, shelter, and all the other considerations that go into a physical visit can be overwhelming. However, jail and prison officials can take direct actions to reduce these logistical and financial burdens.

How Officials can Help the Children of Inmates

Simply by modifying their facility’s community-facing messaging, jail administrators can entice caregivers to schedule visits, instead of rebuffing them. Prominent, easy-to-read visitation rules and availabilities are key to inspiring confidence in caregivers, and a confident caregiver is that much more likely to schedule a visitation for their child. An incarceration facility’s website is also critically important. Jail administrators should hound their webmasters into making their sites as user-friendly as possible.

Finally, if increasing parent-child contact in your facility is important to you, consider partnering with a socially conscious video visitation provider. Make it a priority to find one that offers a secure, standalone solution to enable frequent teleconferencing between children and their incarcerated parents. No child should ever be denied the opportunity to visit their parent because the hotels, gasoline, or time off of work is too expensive. With a video visitation solution, jail administrators can keep families close, and in frequent contact.